American’s Prison Population Declines

By Ted Swain

With the closing of prisons in many states and initiatives to modify tough on crime laws, America’s prison populations are declining. Despite this, the number of people sentenced to life in prison continues to grow, says the non-profit Washington think tank, The Sentencing Project.

Between 2011 and 2012, seventeen states closed one or more prisons. However, more and more inmates are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP). According to Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., and Jean Chung, authors of the recent report, LWOP is the preferred sentencing tool by a majority of states. The analysis documents long-term trends in use of life imprisonment.

During most of the 20th Century, “life” generally meant that one would eventually get out of prison. When the Supreme Court struck the death penalty in 1972, only seven states had LWOP sentencing available. After the court re-instated the death penalty in 1976 , the other 43 states enacted LWOP statutes. According to Nellis and Chung, prior to the boom in LWOP, a life sentence typically meant that one would be released after a decade or so. Now, after the LWOP explosion, there’s a popular saying that “life-means life.”

As punishment and incapacitation became the primary tools of criminal justice, many people abandoned the idea of reforming offenders and it became common to put people away forever. As a result, by 2012 there were 160,000 people serving life sentences, a 12 percent increase since 2008. Today, one of every nine people in prison is serving a life sentence.


The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than life sentences with the possibility of parole. There has been a 22.2 percent increase in LWOP since 2008. Approximately 10,000 non-violent offenders are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.

The broadened use of life sentences has been a symbol of transformation in corrections policy. All states have LWOP statutes, however only five states, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan have more than 60 percent of the nation’s lifers. In recent years, budgetary constraints and factors pointing to failure of such programs have caused states to re-think sentencing policies. After a decades long growth spurt, some politicians and policy makers recognize that “lock-em up forever” programs, simply do not work.

Much of the LWOP population is made up of people like Larry Yarbrough of Oaklahoma. He is typical the many cases comprising the LWOP population, says the Sentencing Project. Yarbrough was a 63-year old married restaurant owner, with five children and 13 grandchildren. He received a life sentence for selling one ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes. So far, Yarbrough has served 18 years and seems likely to spend their rest of his life in prison.

Not only is the number of people serving a life sentence at an unprecedented level, 30 percent of them are LWOP. With 160,000 people serving a life sentence, over 49,000 have no possibility of parole. While homicide makes up over 64 percent of the commitment offenses, many are like Clarence Aaron who was a 23 year old college student arrested in 1993. He had served as liaison between two drug dealers, but was not present or even knowledgeable about the overall drug transaction. He was convicted and held responsible for the total amount of drugs. He is now in his 20th year of a three life-term sentence.

Racial disparity is a factor when examining those serving prison sentences. While African Americans comprise 12 percent of the general population, they are 28 percent of total arrests. They are 38 percent of those convicted of a felony and sent to prison; 47 percent of lifers are African American and 58 percent of LWOP prisoners are African American. Overall, two thirds of all inmates are non-white. In some states the percentages are higher. In Maryland, 77 percent of lifers are African American. In Georgia, 72 percent of lifers are African American.


Politicians often bolster misconceptions. The Sentencing Project Report points to the example of Maryland Governor Parris Glendening. Glendening famously told his parole board “do not even recommend – do not even send to my desk – a request for murderers and rapists” unless they are terminal or very old. Then Governor Gray Davis also got attention saying individuals convicted of homicide would only leave prison “in a pine box.”

Evidence demonstrates that lengthy prison sentences do not produce the desired result and are counter-productive. In 1994, Georgia passed a “two strikes” law which resulted in a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for a second serious offense. However, despite the law’s intended purpose, only half those sentenced under the law are convicted of a homicide.

California maintains 25.2 percent of the nation’s life-sentenced population. The Three Strikes Law is responsible for 22 percent of the state’s 40,000 lifers. The law passed on the promise that it would take persons convicted of serious and violent offenses off the streets. However, in reality, more than half of persons sentenced under three strikes were not convicted of a violent or serious offense. According to Nellis and Chung, the United States is far out of step with other countries in terms of sentencing offenders to life. Whole life sentences are very rare in other countries.

In the United Kingdom, only 49 people are serving life without the possibility of parole. In the United States, over 49,000 are serving the same sentence. The study concludes that support for life without possibility of parole is based on the false promise of public safety. The Sentencing Project draws on additional data analysis and reports of other public safety enterprises. As an example, one such report is a 2011 study of results of 860 people convicted of homicide, sentenced to life, and who were all paroled beginning in 1995. Analysis of the outcome finds that in the years since their release, only five of the individuals have been returned to prison for new felonies.

Mounting concerns about mass incarceration are rooted partly in the monetary issues plaguing many states. In August 2013 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech that has reinvigorated discussions on mass incarceration. However policies and practices around life sentences remain unchallenged despite a sustained period of low crime. According to findings of the report, the violent crime rate is now close to half of what it was 20 years ago.


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